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Culleny: Unenlightenment returns

We’re heading back to square one. Though we’re well into the 21st century, we’re at a point where Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” is reduced to debating Ken Ham, The Non-Science Guy, as to whether the earth is 6,000 or 4.5 billion years old.

As you might expect, that recent debate got nowhere because the frames of reference of the two sides are incompatible. We’ve gone back to a moment dangerously close to that when curious men like Galileo were made to bow before popes and recant ideas about phenomena that were observably true, but threatened the influence of the church. Unfortunately, the power of religion to uphold stubbornness still exists.

Though we’ve moved from the tyranny of kings and clergy through a relatively enlightened period (at least as far as science is concerned) we seem to be backsliding — caught in an undertow of misunderstanding of what science is.

This misunderstanding reveals itself in the arguments of creationists who fight tooth and nail to equate science with legend, denying science’s findings, while at the same time living in a world transformed (for better and for worse) by the fruits of science. For example, how many creationists refuse medical treatment when needed? How many own TVs, cars, refrigerators, use the Internet, enjoy tropical fruit in January in New England? All of these have been made possible through application of scientific method.

A huge part of the problem is that, in their beef against evolution, creationists smudge the distinction between science and religion. Let’s be clear, scientists are not suggesting their findings have religious value, it’s creationists who claim that ancient literature has scientific value. They insist the Bible’s story of origins, Genesis, is a valid alternative to scientific theory and should be taught in schools as science.

There’s that word, “theory” — the hook creationists hang their gripe upon, saying evolution is just theory, not fact. But this is a lens of ignorance creationists use to view scientific method. Creationists do not use the term “theory” the way it’s meant by scientists. Creationists consider theory to be something like a speculation, a groundless conjecture. But that’s not what scientists mean by “theory.”

What, then, does the term mean to scientists? What is scientific method?

Scientific method goes something like this:

Someone observes something in nature, mulls it over and hypothesizes. They think, “I bet if we do this, that will happen” and set off to test their hypothesis. They try to determine if what they’ve seen and been mulling over will happen again under very particular conditions.

They experiment.

Then, if their experiments produce the same results over and over, they put forth a theory of that phenomena. They say, “This thing is caused by that thing.” The theory is then is tested by others and, if all results concur, it’s accepted as fact which we (hopefully) utilize to advance civilization.

The anti-evolution hang-up for creationists is often capsulized in that word: theory — a term infused with the fundamental humility of good science which knows that with new knowledge, theories change, new facts arise. At its best, science is flexible, adaptable, fluid, humble, open-minded and open-ended. This is not true of religious beliefs which are absolutely bound to sacred literature and closed.

Religion has a different way of understanding phenomena. Religious “method” goes more like this:

Someone notices something in nature, mulls it over and, without the availability of deeper knowledge, thinks, “This must have happened because the Wind God was perturbed” and then creates a story to explain what they’ve experienced and how they’ve thought about it. If it’s an engaging story it’s repeated over and over until it’s ingrained and becomes the basic lore of a culture. Finally, many of these stories are accepted as divine revelation, written down and included in a literary collection as set down by God and deemed irrefutable.

From science we’ve gotten advanced medicine, HDTV, bullet trains, pain-free dentistry, air travel, nuclear weapons, IEDs, diabolical instruments of torture, global warming, fracking, and Fukushima.

From religion: great inspirational art and literature, principles of love, charity, sacrifice, guidelines to social behavior, shamanic medicine, the subjugation of women, diabolical rationales for torture, merciless exclusivity, inquisitions, jihads and convenient moralities sanctioned by gods.

But the problem with equating Scripture with science goes beyond the truth of Evolution or Genesis. The problem is that when non-fact-based reality is not only accepted in one sphere but allowed to infect politics and nudge out fact-based reality, we wind up with a kind of chaos of magical thinking wherein nothing must be examined and validated. We wind up with sound-bite news and party-sanctioned sets of facts, none of which must be proofed.

The famous pamphleteer of the American revolution, Thomas Paine, said that “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”

If you need confirmation of the truth of Paine’s remark, check out the Ham on Nye debate. The debater’s answer to the last question put it all in a nutshell:

“What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” the moderator asked.

Ham, The Non-Science Guy said, “Nothing.”

“Just one piece of evidence,” said Bill Nye, The Science Guy.

Evidence, the stuff of iphone and xBox development.

Culleny lives in Shelburne Falls, works in construction, is a singer/songwriter, and has done commentary for National Public Radio. His email address is jimculleny@comcast.net.

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